National inspiration must reach city war zones



A 27-year-old man shot on Dolfield Avenue, hit several times by bullets fired from a .45-caliber pistol. A 23-year-old man shot in the head on Barclay Street.

Two young African-American men joining the ranks of the city's critically wounded.

The first occurred Tuesday morning, down the street from March Funeral Home's Northwest Baltimore location, four hours after the polls opened and 13 hours before Barack Obama declared victory as the next president of the United States. The second occurred two hours after Obama's midnight speech, a few blocks from the funeral home's east-side building.

Sad bookends of a moment signifying hope and inspiration.

No one thinks that the change Obama promises and so many long for can immediately, or ever, reach the corner boys and gangbangers who occupy so many of Baltimore's streets, who are both responsible for and victims of decades of violence that has made this city one of the deadliest in the nation and claimed the lives of thousands of black males.

But the election of Obama, the nation's first black president, has inspired some hope in the African-American community that anything truly is possible.

A day after the election, Baltimore's elected leaders called on the police commissioner to update the investigation into the slaying of former Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. It turned into a broader discussion of murder, of seemingly futile attempts to stop it and equally futile attempts to arrest those who practice it.

Speaker after speaker invoked Obama's name. A night of jubilation, they said, tempered by the difficult discussion of death.

The president of the City Council, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, spoke bluntly. "If we learned anything from last night, it is that our lives are full of possibility," she said. "Our lives are not disposable."

Annette March Grier is a grief counselor at March Funeral Home, built by her parents and an institution in the city. She remembers growing up and treating the lobby as her personal living room, soaking up the stories of the dead from the living.

She alerted me that the shooting on Dolfield was near her Wabash Avenue office, and noted the shooting on Barclay a few hours later. Both were gang-related, she said. I asked her about Obama's message, and the link that Rawlings-Blake had made. Will the election of Obama make a difference?

"The outcome was, of course, very encouraging and inspiring," Grier said. "I saw a united country that was looking for change and that wanted to make a difference. They were saying, 'It's time to heal our community and our country.' "

Later, Grier lamented: "They were still shooting on the day of the election."

Grier is pushing ahead - she says with renewed vigor since Obama's victory - with a new $3 million counseling center to help children grieve. She has gotten $300,000 from the state, is awaiting approval of another $300,000 from the federal government, and hopes to have it built by 2010. It will be called Roberta's House, named for her mother - "the compassionate icon of our business."

Grier, a registered nurse, often speaks to children in schools in sessions she calls "Good Grief" to help them express their feelings. "They are living in a war zone," she said. "They see friends shot on their front steps. They see gangs. They carry obituaries in their binders."

She said a third-grader told her she was afraid to sleep over at a friend's house because her mother might go out and get killed. Grier said that, nationally, one in 20 children loses a parent before turning 18.

"I would triple that in our community," Grier said. "Kids don't use words to grieve. They act out. The violence we are seeing is hopelessness, fear - fear that if I don't do something to you, you will do something to me first."

Grier sees it at funerals for gang members. "This place will be packed," she said. "Three hundred people. And you can count the adults on one hand. They are signaling to each other, and they take all that anger back to the street. During the service, they are talking about revenge."

Grier told me she's not sure whether such young men can be saved. We've heard time and time again that one generation might be lost but we need to save the next one, until that one can't be saved and we look again.

The kids who need saving keep getting younger. Like the third-graders who carry obituaries to school. Does the promise of Obama inspire them?

"I hope so," Grier said. "I think so."

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